Over the past four years or more the Royal Air Force has been Whitehall’s armed force of choice for its foreign interventions.1 Since withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the army has been used exclusively for rear echelon training.
This year the world’s oldest air force has also enjoyed the kudos of both public and close allies on the occasion of its 100th year since formation. In July just one week alone saw a 100 fleet flypast over London, an RAF air power conference, and the Royal International Air Tattoo weekend at Fairford. This hyperbole has obscured the reality of what its offensive air operations can do and have done to targets, often in built up areas, in the Middle East (Mosul and Raqqa being only the most well-known) and Libya. These are targets that in most cases cannot fire back. All of these air-to-ground attacks can be classed as a ‘turkey shoot’ as not a single RAF aircrew member has been killed in action this decade.2
While VFP’s Working Group note that Operation Shader (the operational codename for the UK’s contribution to the ongoing military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is intended to be directed at ISIL/IS Daesh, with so-called ‘low collateral damage precision strikes’, it is also noted, and clear from multiple independent public sources that the opposite is invariably the case.
Six weeks ago at the biennial Farnborough international air show, hidden behind civil airliners, SAR helicopters and business jets, the covers were pulled back to showcase the latest in RAF capabilities and wishes. VFP members went along on the press and trade days to see what this meant in practice and to make an assessment of the costs.
Traditionally the Prime Minister turns up on the opening day, makes a bee-line for the UK arms companies to congratulate them on what a splendid job they are doing, and more often than not with promises of more funding. USA arms marketing types at Farnborough have rather more enhanced the English language in this regard stating: “Our products support the warfighter throughout the entire kill-chain, delivering unmatched lethality”
Just one instance of the back-slapping that went on during that week to cement the so-called “special relationship” was this quote from Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephan Hillier CAS: “Since its formation on 1st April 1918, the RAF has continuously been delivering air power at home and around the world. From those earliest days, it has done so side-by-side with American airmen and women in the pursuit of peace, stability, democratic freedoms and the rule of law. From experience, we in VFP see the reality rather differently.
Leading the charge at Farnborough was wide coverage of the re-formation of 617 Squadron at Marham with the much heralded hi-tech F35B JSF (joint strike fighter) from Lockheed-Martin (BAE Systems in Lancashire is a mere bit player in this project). Four F35Bs have been delivered to Marham as of mid-July at a cost of £88.8 million each (more than a new mid size airliner), with five more due by the end of August. UK commitment for 48 F35s has already been funded at £9.1 billion for a planned acquirement of 138. Infrastructure work at Marham, in the form of Project Anvil to accommodate F35s and a rebuilt runway, comes in at £550 million with Lockheed likewise claiming £9.75 billion in contracts for British suppliers to date.
Lockheed-Martin was also able to attach the coveted “Combat proven” tag to the F35 due to Israeli versions having bombed Iranian targets in Syria twice since late May.
Hot on the heels of the F35 Squadron stand-up coverage, also on Farnborough day one was the public unveiling by defence secretary Gavin Williamson of a new British super-fighter project, “Team Tempest”, including a full size mock-up on display.
Williamson claimed that £2 Billion would be invested by 2025 in this new ‘future combat air strategy’ (FCAS). He further sought to justify the expense: “We are entering a dangerous new era of warfare; it shows our allies that we are open to working together to protect the skies in an increasingly threatening future”. Perhaps the irony that it is politicians like him that are threatening the future was lost.
In connection with this the MoD issued copies of its same-day publication “Combat Air Strategy: An ambitious vision for the future”, a 34 page document which proposes many more billions to be spent to 2040 and beyond. Team Tempest includes the RAF3, BAE (Warton), Leonardo (Basildon), MBDA (Stevenage) and Rolls Royce (Bristol); with MBDA stating “future weapons likely to include” hypersonic missiles and directed energy lasers.
It was stated that the UK’s current combat air capabilities have generated 80% of the UK’s defence export income over the last decade of sales to Saudi Arabia and Oman4. VFP noted also that, perhaps predictably, many non-western foreign air force uniforms abounded, dripping with braid, “scrambled egg”, and medals.
In a separate event on July 3rd, Williamson opened MBDA’s new manufacturing facility in Bolton, Greater Manchester, which will be used to develop inert missile equipment and systems including the Brimstone air to surface missile (ASM) whose capability sustainment programme will cost £400 million up to the year 2030 and beyond. This is excluding the cost of each Brimstone missile which is £100K each.
Rather more sinister was news of the replacement of the UK’s own ‘killer’ drone (Reaper MQ-9A) with the Sky Guardian MQ-9B from US company General Atomics. Named ‘Protector’ RG Mk1 in RAF use, this fleet will be in service with 31 Squadron based at Waddington where the MoD have spent £93 million on infrastructure for at least the minimum force of 14 to 16 now on order. This new version of which, notably, only a model and a ground control cockpit (see photo) were on display, is touted as offering twice the endurance of the present Reapers with 3 underwing pylons on each side to carry Brimstone air to surface missiles and the Raytheon UK (Harlow) Paveway IV LGB (laser guided bomb). This ‘Protector’ fleet comes at a total cost to the UK of £415 million. Since 2015, more than 50% of all air to ground weapons used over Afghanistan were delivered by such unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
Ticking away in the development pipeline were ongoing UK offensive weapons such as the MBDA SPEAR (selective precision effects at range) destined for the F35 RAF fleet. It is a 60 mile range stand-off air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) with a UK taxpayer price tag of £411 million.
With the planned retirement of the two squadron fleet of Tornado GR4s next year, the Typhoon squadrons are due to take over all the GR4’s offensive bombing roles via BAE’s Project Centurion due for completion at the end of this year, specifically to incorporate the MBDA Storm Shadow cruise missile (ALCM) at £790K each and Brimstone ASM “enhancements”. Both have been extensively used by RAF Tornado attack aircraft in so-called combat engagements (nil casualties to the RAF2).
Likewise both ASMs and Paveway IVs (up to £70K each depending on variant) have been sold to the Royal Saudi Air Force and it was confirmed by former UK Defence Secretary Fallon that all three were used in the Yemen, assisted ‘unofficially’ by RAF ‘advisors’, contributing to the 21st century’s worst humanitarian crisis to date.
1As of December 2016, it was reported by The Telegraph, that the Royal Air Force is operating at its most intense level for 25 years in a single theatre of operation. This far outstrips the UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. RAF jets have dropped 11 times more bombs (1,276 strikes) on Syria and Iraq in the then last 12 months (Dec 15-Dec 16) than they did in the busiest year of action in Afghanistan a decade previously (119). VfP Working Group has seen no substantial change to this operational level in the past 18 months. As of February this year via a FOI request, Op Shader has cost £1.75 Billion to the UK public purse with both the Tornado and Typhoon fleets clocking up 12,000 hours each by that month. (table above, source Drone Wars UK)
2Where are the new RAF ‘heroes’? Not a single RAF pilot or aircrew has been lost to hostile action since at least this decade. One death in Libya and two in a Puma accident in Operation Shader, were all due to ‘other causes’. Since 2000 50% of RAF casualties are due solely to exercises or in training aircraft accidents.
3In the form of a new ‘Rapid Capabilities Office’ (RCO) aping a Pentagon equivalent, headed by Air Vice Marshall Rochelle who said of his new office: “has injected a sense of innovation and urgency by supercharging not subverting the system”.
4 Older readers will remember the notorious Hunting BL755 cluster bomb which was used by the RAF in the Falklands and 2nd Gulf War, now phased out and no longer permitted due to the UK being a signatory to the UN’s 2010 Cluster Munitions Convention. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are known to hold ex-UK stocks, and neither are signatories.